1 November 1963 (age 53)
At the University of Creativity, as his Nashville home has been affectionately dubbed, “Big Kenny” Alphin acts much like a faculty chair. “Professor of Music Without Prejudice,” you might call him, as he gleefully fosters an atmosphere so thick with inspiration and imagination you could swim in it. The campus boasts a splendid residence housing the Pub of Love — a throwback to the MuzikMafia’s humble origins — a poolside set of bongos improvised by 15, 25, and 50 gallon drums, and a church, where Kenny has installed the state-of-the-art Last Dollar studio. “My wife told me I needed to go to church more often,” he says. “So I built one in the backyard. Then I put a studio inside it, so I’d want to go to church all the time.”
Within this artist’s paradise, it is, ironically, the unassuming garage where Kenny spends most of his time and has set up the unofficial headquarters of Love Everybody, LLC. Among the accouterments are a fridge full of beer (“Isn’t it beautiful?” he marvels), a couple of tumbledown velvet sofas, a beach cruiser, and a chainsaw. It might, in fact, seem an unlikely habitat for a star who’s written five top 10 hits for artists such as Tim McGraw (“Last Dollar Fly Away”), Gretchen Wilson (“Here For The Party”), Jason Aldean (“Hicktown” and “Amarillo Sky”), and of course Big & Rich (“Lost In This Moment”), and been named BMI’s Songwriter of the Year. As half of the Grammy-nominated genre-bending super duo Big & Rich, Kenny sold in excess of five million albums and opened sold-out stadium tours for Martina McBride and Tim McGraw.
In the last year and a half, however, Kenny has sought respite from the madness surrounding Big & Rich’s meteoric rise to fame. “I’ve had a lot of time for reflection,” he says. “I’ve come through some tough places in my life. I’ve been through hell and back musically, and personally. I wanted to step beyond all of that, and just write great stuff that would mean something to people, stuff I’d want to sing for the rest of my life. I have a three-year old now,” he adds, referring to his son Lincoln William Holiday Alphin, “so I found myself really asking what it is I want to leave behind. What lessons can I impart?” Big Kenny’s forthcoming solo album, The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farmboy, is replete with such lessons, from “Find A Heart” “If I could say one thing to my kid, that would be it,” Kenny says, to “Less Than Whole,” a self-described “dissertation on forgiveness.”
Co-produced by Chris Stone, who engineered Big & Rich’s two most recent albums, and using largely the same band, led by lead guitarist and musical director Adam Shoenfeld, the album possesses the same hard rock-country edge, whimsy and humor that made “Save A Horse (Ride A Cowboy)” Big & Rich’s breakout hit, as well as the emotional, heartfelt sincerity fans of “Holy Water” and “8th of November” came to know. At the same time, The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farmboy is unique to Big Kenny as a solo artist. Referencing “Drifter” in particular, Kenny explains, “This album has a much deeper groove than anything Big & Rich ever did. You have to remember, I’m ten years older than John . So while he was just a pea in the pod, I was growing up on AM 1490 when they still played everything all mixed together. So alongside Haggard, Jones, and Nelson, I was raised on the Beatles, Queen, Kansas, the Steve Miller Band, Bob Marley, and Bill Withers.” Drawing from such diverse musical inspiration, Kenny’s solo work is infused with everything from country to rock ‘n roll, to reggae to R&B.
What’s more, tinkering in his backyard studio, Kenny enjoyed a much more leisurely recording pace than was ever possible with Big & Rich. “I’m a quality freak,” he says. “We had a lot more time to experiment with different sounds, and we were able to record tracks five or six times until we got it just right. And we were able to focus much more on interludes and segues—so it’s not just a bunch of songs. It’s like one great big one.” Amazingly, Kenny recorded 50 songs, ultimately choosing from among them to create the single best album possible. That was just one of the luxuries, he found, of being free of the constraints associated with a major label recording contract.
“When I began working on a solo album, my label didn’t like anything I turned in,” Kenny recalls. But neither would they release him from his contract. “I was stuck,” Kenny says, “and it just twists my soul to want to work, to want to create music and put it out there in the world, but to not be allowed that.” It was out of this frustration that he wrote “Free Like Me,” and was perhaps not coincidentally freed from what he calls “label slavery” a month later. Since that time, Kenny’s channel of creativity has opened up a thousand fold. Independently, he has outsourced publicity to Big & Rich veteran Jules Wortman, booking to CAA, and radio promotion, distribution, sales and marketing to Bigger Picture Group (the innovative company behind the Zac Brown Band’s recent success).
Yet he retains complete creative control over music, his website, and all visuals. He manages a staff of ten, including a couple of students from Nashville’s Watkins College of Art, Design, & Film, whom he hired after they won his contest to direct the video for “Share the Love.” Kenny intends to make a video for every last song on the album, a process he finds immensely rewarding. The video for lead single “Long After I’m Gone” was shot on his family’s Culpepper, Virginia home, where he grew up in a house built before the American Revolution on 600 acres of cattle ranching land. Watching it, he points out, “We have old 8mm footage of me at age three performing in that same patch of yard. I planted those trees when I was 16 — that’s same road I walked down to catch the school bus. I built that cattle chute!” he says, excitement clearly growing. “This video will mean so much more to my friends and my family 20 years from now than if I’d just gone into some sound studio in Nashville.”
Not only has Kenny’s creativity expanded in his newfound independence, he’s discovered an agility that a major corporation simply couldn’t accommodate. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t have to ask for permission,” Kenny says. The album’s opening track “Wake Up” is a case in point. On a Sunday, Kenny wrote the song on a tour bus alongside Jon Nicholson and 3 Doors Down’s Brad Arnold. He recorded it on Tuesday, before a friend suggested he contact Canada’s Blackfoot Confederacy to add the Native American tribal chanting that now kicks off the record. So Kenny emailed them the track. By Thursday they had added their part, and invited him to the Valley of Eden, four hours north of Calgary. He arrived on Friday night, and on Saturday made a vibrant music video featuring panoramic crane shots — wilderness as far as the eye can see — and over 50 tribe members. One of whom, Kenny points out, had driven through the night all the way from New Mexico. “This experience meant to such to them,” Kenny says. “They were thrilled to be involved.”
Kenny has a way of touching people with his music wherever he goes. Deeply affected by the genocide tragedy in the Darfur region of Sudan, Kenny committed himself last year to building the Kunyuk School for Girls in Akon, delivering medical and school supplies, along with musical instruments, clothing and building tools — all of which he funded. He documented his journey on film, and since debuting it at the Nashville Film Festival in 2008, has utilized the film to spread awareness of the cause. In recognition of his efforts, the Save Darfur Coalition named him their December 2008 “Darfur Hero.” “Around the world, in every language, music is the common denominator,” Kenny says. “Share the music, share the love. Get out there and throw around as much love as you can. Come bearing a light and shine it all around.”
Lately, Kenny has also discovered a passion for seeing America. Finding jets and tour buses too restrictive, he’s taken to flying around in a small airplane, inspired by the natural beauty of this country and devoted to sharing his love for it. Angered over mountaintop coal removal in Appalachia, Kenny has become involved with the Natural Resources Defense Council, working to end what he calls a national disgrace. “They are tearing down the oldest forests in the country to get at coal that will be gone tomorrow,” he says, incensed. “They could be installing windmills on that same land that would provide clean power for years and years to come.” Closer to home at the University of Creativity, Kenny puts his money where his mouth is, as he and his wife Christiev have taken steps to make their home completely green, utilizing solar and water power to achieve total self-sufficiently.
A true Ambassador of Love, Big Kenny has made it his mission to “Highlight the good, inspire greatness, and encourage mutual responsibility for the betterment of mankind.” With music as his medium, Kenny works tirelessly to mold the world around him into something better, something he’ll be proud to leave behind. “‘Long After I’m Gone’ is a better description of where I come from and where I’m going than I’ve ever been able to give anybody in my career,” Kenny says. “It’s only the love we put out into the world and the tangible things we leave behind that make a lasting impression. ‘The love I leave and my wildest dreams will live on/Long after I’m gone.’” With the release of The Quiet Times of a Rock and Roll Farmboy, rich with lessons in love, forgiveness, and freedom distilled from a lifetime of highs and lows, Big Kenny’s legacy of creativity, passion, and music is sure to carry on.
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